McConnell Foundation – Background


I. McConnell Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund (SIF)


Improving the lives of Canadians —and contributing to a more resilient society — requires breakthrough ideas and approaches, game-changing strategies and collaborations, and continuous innovation.

To support this work and to commemorate its 75th anniversary, the McConnell Foundation launched the Social Innovation Fund in 2012.

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF) supports organizations looking to strengthen their capacities in order to scale for greater impact. SIF grants to high potential/high impact organizations are integrated with special convenings plus technical and peer support through Innoweave or the Social Innovation Learning Program (SILP). The Social Innovation Fund was originally launched with two streams —one for early stage innovations and a second for scaling up successful social innovations and for mature organizations diversifying program and business models.

How does the Innovation Fund work?

The McConnell Social Innovation Fund will support work that is congruent with the Foundation’s own mission and granting priorities, in the following categories:

1. Early stage consolidation

  • Community sector organizations that have proven or promising early stage innovations that need additional support to create the capacity and conditions to effectively sustain them.

2. Re-tooling for growth

  • Transitions to scale: Established organizations that are operating successful social innovations which they are planning to scale up to meet growing demand; or
  • Innovations at scale: Established organizations (over $1 million annual budget) that are introducing new innovations that significantly modify or complement their core business.

In addition to providing direct grants through the Fund, the Foundation may convene meetings with other social innovators, policy makers and funders; arrange access to Innoweave workshops; and commission studies or reports.

What do we mean by ‘Social Innovation’?

Social innovations are new ideas, products, services, institutions and relationships, offering fresh approaches to overcoming pressing societal challenges.

Examples of social innovations of the past include the nursing profession, the emergence of cooperatives, and umbrella fundraising organizations. Today, we are witnessing a proliferation of social innovations, many enabled by breakthroughs in technology, disruptions in the status quo, and through engagement with vulnerable populations.

Social innovations often occur at the edges of systems, or where two or more ‘siloed’ disciplines meet. For example, the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship integrates financial with social or environmental outcomes. Innovations also occur when a solution from one domain is transferred to another—the way Registered Retired Savings Plans were adapted to create Registered Disability Savings Plans. Disruptive social innovations like mobile health programs bring ‘good enough’ solutions to large numbers of people at low cost.

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has supported leading social innovators in Canada for the past 15 years. Sustaining and disseminating social innovations is a core component of our work.

We are now seeing the emergence of social innovation systems, hubs and clusters designed to generate continuous social innovation. For example, the Social Innovation Generation (SiG) partnership conducts research in social innovation; trains and mentors social innovators and social entrepreneurs; and supports collaboration and learning involving the community, government and private sectors.

Innoweave, a McConnell Foundation program, is making technology and social process tools available to community sector organizations, in cooperation with several partners.

As well as supporting individual social innovations, we seek to increase awareness and support for social innovation as a means of contributing to Canadians’ resilience—our capacity to manage complex and unexpected challenges.

While recognizing that social innovation is not a linear process, it can be thought of as developing through the following five phases (adapted from The Open Book of Social Innovation by Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice, and Geoff Mulgan. March 2010):

  1. PromptsProblem Identification: Once a problem is identified, it prompts the need for bringing fresh perspectives to generate new ideas.
  2. Generation IdeasPiloting: New ideas become prototypes or pilot projects for conceptand model testing.
  3. Sustaining – Once the prototype or pilot is validated as an improvement on existing practice, the innovation can be turned into a sustainable program.
  4. Scaling – In responding to increased demand, the innovation can then be ‘brought to scale’ — expanding reach and impact, and often generating insights into possible shifts at asocietal or systems level.
  5. Changing Systems – With collaboration across sectors and interventions at different levels—from community practice to policies —social innovation can help us both tonavigate complex problems, and to shift the context and conditions — the systems — that perpetuate them.

Supporting transitions across stages

Transforming a successful pilot into a sustained approach to a social challenge, and then disseminating or scaling it, requires different organizational strengths and partnerships than those needed to create and test a new idea. Currently, there is unmet demand for supporting the ability of organizations to transition across these stages.

The McConnell Social Innovation Fund will focus on the following transitions:

  1. Early stage Consolidation
  2. Re-tooling for Growth

In addition, we will support multi-stakeholder collaborations whose purpose is to effect change at a systems level.

1. Early-stage Consolidation

After an innovation has been tested and validated, it typically elicits requests to expand the program to other jurisdictions or to share the innovation with other organizations.

While this demand is gratifying, and indeed, a required condition of successful dissemination, the organization needs a solid foundation to be able to carry this out. This may involve strengthening the current organization, merging with a larger one, or identifying partners with whom to undertake the dissemination. In any case, new staff, new skills, more robust systems, a new business model, and new partners may be required.

Funding amount

Up to $150,000 over 2 year.

Eligible activities

Activities under this stream could include:

  • Strategy formulation, through participation in peer learning and/or consulting arrangements.
  • Structuring, restructuring costs.
  • Improvements to operational, financial and human resource systems, and other infrastructure needs.
  • Impact measurement and knowledge transfer capacity – i.e. a relevant means of assessing impact and communicating the results to create broader change.
  • Development of new or diversified business models to ensure long-term, stable funding.

To apply for support, the organization should meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • Have a tested social innovation that significantly improves current practice.
  • Have a committed, diverse board, and core staff leadership team.
  • Have funding for current program activities plus a demonstrated demand for program expansion.

Preference will be given to organizations that are working in one of the Foundation’s Emerging or current program areas.

In addition, we look forward to working with organizations which:

  • Have a theory of change – i.e. a thorough understanding of the problem they are addressing and a working hypothesis about the difference their work will make.
  • Understand that scaling up is not a linear process – that operating at a new level may involve changes to program design or organizational structure.
  • Demonstrate openness to changing work culture, structures and activities.
  • Are open to collaboration and learning with others.
  • Can provide a frank assessment of current leadership and organizational strengths and weaknesses.

I. IMcConnell Foundation’s Focus Areas for 2021 and Beyond

The McConnell Foundation has worked to develop and refine a strategic direction that will guide our actions and allocation of resources over the coming decade.

McConnell Foundation Focus Areas 2021.
Figure 1. McConnell Foundation Focus Areas 2021.


Advance a reconciliation economy where wealth and resources are equitably shared and sustainably stewarded for this generation and those yet to come, in relationship with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.


Reconciliation is a priority for the McConnell Foundation. Thanks to the courage of Indian residential school survivors and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more people than ever before are reflecting on what Canada will look like when reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples becomes a reality.

By working together to address the legacy of our shared history, Canada will become a more inclusive and resilient country. The Foundation believes that this can be achieved, in part, by creating a reconciliation economy. In a reconciliation economy, wealth and resources are equitably shared and sustainably managed. We will know we have reached a reconciliation economy when there is no longer a socio-economic gap between the well-being of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Our approach

The McConnell Reconciliation Initiative will focus its efforts on bringing forward the societal change necessary for a reconciliation economy. In cooperation with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders, we will target three key areas:

  1. Collaborative funding models
  2. Innovative platforms for change
  3. Solutions finance

In addition, all efforts made by the Initiative will be aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

McConnell Foundation focus on reconciliation.
Figure 2. McConnell Foundation focus on reconciliation.

1. Collaborative Funding Models

Collaborative funding models enable a variety of stakeholders to coordinate resources when tackling persistent social challenges in Indigenous communities, such as safe housing, clean drinking water, and access to education.

With the close of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a growing number of individuals and organizations are looking to work with Indigenous communities and accelerate reconciliation. However, they often do not know how or where to start. Collaborative funding models can channel positive intentions in a constructive way, by enabling a variety of stakeholders to coordinate resources to solve complex challenges.

Collaboratives promote diversity by bringing a variety of partners to the table. Through shared administration, they allow for a more efficient use of resources. Partners are able to leverage financial resources, human capital, networks, and each others’ strengths. When done right, collaborative funding models are low risk and high reward.

Some of the collaborative funding models the Foundation has partnered on include: the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture and Community Collaborative, {Re}conciliation and the Arts, NWT On the Land Funding Collaborative, and the Indigenous Innovation Demonstration Fund

2. Innovative Platforms for Change

Innovative platforms for change unite a variety of stakeholders to test new ways to solve problems.

The housing, food security, education, employment and health care systems that were created for Indigenous peoples in Canada are broken. To fix them, we will need to test different ways to solve problems by building on each others’ strengths.

Innovative platforms for change are often composed of a group of individuals with different backgrounds and interests. Members come together to develop a common vision and then find ways to achieve their goals, individually and/or collectively.

Innovative platforms for change also have the ability to tackle challenges and opportunities, from the community level to the national level. Ideally, they influence change at a systemic level.

Some of the innovative platforms for change the Foundation has supported include: the Winnipeg Boldness ProjectDechinta Centre for Research and Learning, and the Moose Hide Campaign.

3. Solutions Finance

The barriers to creating a reconciliation economy require us to go beyond granting and convening. We must deploy all our financial resources in strategic and innovative ways to create lasting systemic change.

To create a reconciliation economy, the current challenges that we will need to address are so large and complex that that they cannot be solved by one solution or by one sector alone. If we are to address the existing inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, then we will need to engage in “a multidisciplinary exercise that challenges businesses, governments, philanthropists and social enterprises to think holistically about their role and their relation to others—not as competitors fighting over an ever-shrinking pie, but as potential collaborators looking to bake something fresh that serves as many stakeholders as possible” (Eggers, W.D., 2013).

Solutions finance is an integrated approach to deploying financial capital and adapting financial models to catalyze, sustain and scale systems transformation. Solutions finance approaches include responsible investing, granting, impact investing and financial innovation.

One example of a project the Foundation supported by using a solutions finance approach is the First Market Housing Precursor Fund that was created by ABSCAN. In the Huron-Wendat Nation in Quebec, this housing loan fund enables its members living on reserve to become homeowners, thereby decreasing dependence on government subsidies and stimulating economic development in the community.

How We Support Change

1. Funder

We support a portfolio of projects, focusing on those that are driven by Indigenous communities/organizations, that utilize innovative solutions to enhance Indigenous wellbeing, and that build collaborative networks that leverage and maximize different members’ strengths and resources to generate change.

2. Investor

We look for opportunities to invest in solutions that generate a measurable, beneficial social and/or environmental impact alongside a financial return.

3. Convener

We collaborate actively with other funders and investors. This helps us to understand and align our individual grants and investments, foster deeper learning and evaluation, facilitate reporting and, most importantly, create greater impact.